Amazing Aretha: L.A.’s Black community and others gracefully honor Queen of Soul
Gospel Music Tribute Remembering Aretha Franklin | Alex Green

LOS ANGELES—Hollywood is known around the world as a “company town” for the motion picture industry and television, but Los Angeles is also a music mecca. In January 1972, Aretha Franklin recorded the live album “Amazing Grace” with Rev. James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir in South L.A., and it became one of America’s bestselling gospel recordings of all time. After her death on August 16, to pay homage to the “Queen of Soul,” selections from that legendary Atlantic Records album were performed on the evening of August 30 at a sonorous, loving Gospel Music Tribute Remembering Aretha Franklin.

A hundred or more singers of the L.A. Chapter of the Gospel Music Workshop of America and the Southern California Community Alumni Choir performed under the batons of Rev. Calvin Bernard Rhone, Rev. Quincy Fielding, Jr., and Herman Jones, backed by an organist pianist, guitarist, and percussionists pounding the sharkskins on bongos and a snare drum set. The impressive array of solo and choral singers filled a phalanx of bleachers in the California African American Museum’s hall. Although they were clad in black, their bright voices moved the standing room only crowd and filtered outdoors to where hundreds more watching big screen TVs were gathered in CAAM’s capacious courtyard. Instead of mourning, songs such as “Amazing Grace” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” celebrated Aretha’s life and legacy.

L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas flanked by former U.S. Rep. Diane Watson on the left and children’s rights activist Marian Wright Edelman on the right. Alex Green

Starting at 7:00 pm, various dignitaries spoke glowingly about the Queen of Soul at the joyous event co-hosted by former executive director of the Los Angeles SCLC chapter and current L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. In addition to Ridley-Thomas, Her Majesty’s eulogizers included CAAM’s Executive Director George Davis, L.A. County Arts Commission’s Executive Director Kristin Sakoda, and Bishop Kenneth Ulmer, Pastor, Faithful Central Bible Church. KJLH radio host Aundrae Russell emceed the two-hour musical extravaganza that featured about 20 of the original choir members who’d actually performed with Aretha almost half a century ago on the “Amazing Grace” hit album.

Other notables in the overflowing crowd included the Civil Rights icon Marian Wright Edelman, the first Black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar, who practiced law for the NAACP and defended activists during 1964’s “Freedom Summer” crusade. Ms. Edelman went on to work on Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign, and as a founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, she heroically stood up to the Clinton administration when the social safety net came under attack with White House complicity during the 1990s. I was thrilled to have the privilege to briefly express my gratitude to her at the Tribute for doing so and being a rare genuinely ethical voice in what passes for the public discourse on behalf of the least of these among us.

Also in attendance at the Gospel Music Tribute Remembering Aretha Franklin was former U.S. Ambassador to Micronesia and four-time Congresswoman Diane Watson from 2001-2011, who represented California’s 33rd Congressional District, which includes South Central. Democratic Party consultant Bob Shrum, who managed to parlay losing campaigns for Al Gore, John Kerry and others into being a TV talking head and USC academic, was also on hand.

Why such a mass outpouring for the Queen of Soul? As Supervisor Ridley-Thomas pointed out in his eulogy: “Aretha used her vocal cords to generate cash for social justice causes. We honored her for her service to human rights and we paid tribute to her talent.” Indeed, as the daughter of Baptist preacher C.L. Franklin, Aretha was born into a prominent Civil Rights family, and she supported that and other causes on and offstage.

Aretha Franklin gave voice to the best within us, which is why the Black community and others embraced her. With songs such as “Respect” and “Think” she expressed ideals of equal rights for all, including for women and ethnic minorities, and won the enduring love of millions that manifested itself in remembrances across America.


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.